Venezuela's parliament has re-elected Diosdado Cabello as National Assembly chief. The staunch Hugo Chavez ally is now in line to be caretaker president should the ailing head of state not recover from cancer surgery.
Cabello's re-election on Saturday solidifies him as the third most powerful figure in the Venezuelan government behind Chavez and Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
"As a patriot … I swear to be supremely loyal in everything I do, to defend the fatherland, its institutions, and this beautiful revolution led by our Commandante Hugo Chavez," Cabello said as he took the oath of office.
The move by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) came after it grew clear illness would keep Chavez from being sworn into a new, six-year term as president on Thursday.
Officials say the socialist president will retain power despite missing the swearing-in ceremony.
Maduro called the swearing-in ceremony a "formality" and said Chavez could be sworn in at a later date, adding he too would remain in office without taking any oath until there was the opportunity to do so.
No longer fit to govern
The opposition says Chavez's absence is a sign that the president is no longer fit to govern, and that a new election should be held.
"It is not only the head of state who is sick, the Republic is sick," said opposition deputy Hiran Gavira. "The public finances are exhausted, there are shortages, inflation, excessive indebtedness, personal insecurity."
But Cabello, holding up a copy of the constitution in a speech after his re-election, slammed opposition leaders for their criticisms.
"Get this into your heads: Hugo Chavez was elected president and he will continue to be president beyond January 10. No one should have any doubt … this is the constitutional route," he said.
Still in recovery
If Chavez had to step down, or died, Cabello would take over running the country as Assembly president and a new election would be held within 30 days. Chavez's hand-picked successor, Maduro, would be the PSUV candidate.
Chavez was diagnosed with an unspecified form of cancer in his pelvic area in mid-2011. He appeared to make a comeback despite being weakened by radiation therapy, and successfully won re-election on October 7.
But officials have said the 58-year-old has suffered complications from his December 11 surgery, including unexpected bleeding and severe respiratory problems. He has not been seen or heard from in public in over three weeks and is currently recovering in Cuba.
dr/ch (Reuters, AFP)